“I remember wishing that I had a female peer that I could look to for support.”– Madonna, 2016 Billboard Woman of the Year
From September 1992 to June 1995, Madonna found herself in a period of dramatic flux. More than once in interviews, she described this time as being profoundly misunderstood. The choice of the word profound is essential because the word itself connotes depth and meaning. Yet, we’re discussing a woman who excels in a field seen by most as being facile, temporary, and shallow: pop music. But Madonna’s always been more than just a pop star. From her self-titled debut album in 1982 to her snarky promise to “rule the world” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Madonna has always used pop music to forge her one-woman sexual revolution.
For Madonna, pop music was a means to an end. That doesn’t mean she didn’t make great music: she’s responsible for some of the most glorious music of the past forty years. But, it means that music was just one part of her celebrity. When assessing Madonna’s place in popular culture, it doesn’t begin and end with music, but that assessment means looking at America’s relationship with sexuality, female autonomy, and power, as well as evolving gender roles and norms.
Throughout the 1980s, she triumphed, building on her successes and becoming synonymous with the decade. But entering a new decade seemed difficult for the diva. The rise of the Culture Wars in the early 1990s saw issues like abortion, the National Endowment of the Arts, separation of church and state, homosexuality, feminism, sex education in schools, drugs, and free speech become wedge issues, rhetorical footballs for the Religious Right. Pat Buchanan, a politician and conservative pundit, was one of the movement’s most prominent leaders and cheerleaders. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, he thundered:
The The agenda that [the Clintons] would impose on America – abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not the kind of change we can abide in a nation that we still call God’s country.
Buchanan’s fiery words were one of many gauntlets thrown in the mess of the Culture Wars. Amid this, popular culture was a prime target from conservatives as a source of debauchment and morality depravity. Madonna was one of the guiltiest culprits, according to the Right. She was designated as the reason behind the breakdown of morality, respect for gender roles, and family breakdown. Through her music, videos, and performances, she was looking to question the conservative values of the 1980s and 1990s and became a target. Madonna also inspired criticism from other detractors – including rock followers – who saw her as an opportunistic no-talent shock maven who exploited herself and her sexuality to shock audiences. By 1992, she was in the public eye for a decade, and her critics were working hard to convince pop audiences that she was past her selling date, a has-been who was desperately holding on to her celebrity by selling sex.
In this swirl of pessimism, Madonna released two studio albums: 1992’s Erotica which was followed up by 1994’s Bedtime Stories. Both were fall releases and saw Madonna recalibrating her career, responding and course-correcting to the terrifying backlash. Erotica was a direct and outraged challenge to her critics – taking in the criticisms and responding to them via pop music. Bedtime Stories was a softer approach to her celebrity and fame, a retreat of sorts, manifestly centering her persona back to music. Both albums represent critical periods in her career: they simultaneously represent the peaks and nadirs: the albums were predictably respectable sellers for her, and both albums sported big hit singles, but they also betrayed a weariness in the public for Madonna’s antics. Each album also has the ignominious honor of featuring a single that broke her streak of hit singles: Erotica’s “Bad Girl” broke her string of top 20 singles, and Bedtime Stories’ “Bedtime Story” put a stop to her streak of top 40 hit singles. It was a novel experience for Madonna: for the first time in her musical career, she wouldn’t be the dominant voice of pop music in the way she was in the 1980s.
From the release of Erotica’s first single in September of 1992 to Bedtime Stories’ final single in June of 1995, we see a celebrity grapple with several obstacles: aging in a youth-obsessed industry, changes in trends in pop music, the politically ascendant Religious Right, competition from younger pop singers, and the pervasive misogyny in American culture which branded Madonna a pop Hester Prynne. Erotica and Bedtime Stories bookend is probably Madonna’s most challenging and tumultuous period of her professional life.
The word “backlash” as a public repudiation of an actor or thought has been credited to the early-to-mid-20th century when conservative Democrats were increasingly outraged at the national party’s gradual acceptance of civil rights for Black Americans. For some linguists, the word implies a reactionary object to social progress. This definition tracks with the agenda of the Religious Right of the early 1990s. The Religious Right was waging an intellectual war against the post-war centrist-liberal Boomer politics, which were personified by Bill and (especially) Hillary Clinton, who entered the White House in 1992 after defeating President George H.W. Bush. Though ultimately, the Clintons’ record on progressivism would be very mixed, the couple rode into political power on a wave of optimism, positioning themselves as the champions of feminism and gender equality, gay rights, and racial justice. Bill Clinton was able to sell his youth to prospective voters, even showing up on The Arsenio Hall Show to appeal to Hall’s primarily young and urban audience by speaking directly to them. (As well as to show off his mediocre saxophone-playing skills.)
In this charged atmosphere, the Year of the Women, the vestiges of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, the challenges to NEA funding, AIDS, and the growing power of gay politics defined much of the national conversation. In the context of this challenging time, Madonna was placed as an endemic source of amorality.
Tracing the Backlash
Because Madonna dealt with provocative issues, she was regularly brought up by conservatives who shuddered at her public moves. Throughout the 1980s, her career managed to progress unscathed, though, in 1989, we would see an instance when Madonna’s art would become a problem for her career, namely when she released the video to her 1989 hit single “Like a Prayer”. In the video, she is kissing a Black Christ-like figure in a church, she experiences stigmata, and there are scenes of her cavorting on a field in front of a phalanx of burning crosses. The incendiary images in the video led Pepsi, a sponsor of her upcoming tour, to pull a commercial collaborative project. (Though Madonna was able to keep the $5 million advance.)
Not long after, Madonna found herself at odds with another foe over a music video. This time, her adversary was one of the most unlikely enemies: MTV. The music channel was an invaluable part of her success in the 1980s; similarly, her output made the channel popular. So, when Madonna released the video for her single, “Justify My Love”, the reaction of the music channel was quite surprising: it sought to ban the video from its rotation due to its sexual content. As with her tousle with Pepsi, Madonna remained financially victorious, as she decided to release the video as a VHS single and sold over a million copies.
So, one could say that Erotica was a culmination of sorts. Pent up emotions and feelings from years of media-driven assaults on Madonna’s character and morality. Much of the music on the album is confrontational and quite angry. She seems to have compiled a list of accusations leveled against her and, in response, produced an album. She was also responding to an AIDS-era America, in which queer communities across the US were devastated by the illness.
Madonna Peddles Erotica
Upon its release, Erotica was met with a muted reception from critics and slightly sleepier sales than usual. Critics found the record chilly, distant, and undernourished. Writer David Browne complained of Madonna’s “soulless” singing, calling her vocals “parched” and damned Erotica as “the most joyless dance music ever made.” Browne’s criticism is astute. Despite his dismissal of the album’s merits, Erotica isn’t the four-on-the-floor disco romp that listeners came to expect from her. Erotica wasn’t meant to be disco euphoria; instead, it’s a deliberately heavy, cold record that addresses difficult and unpleasant themes. Working with illustrious DJ and remixer Shep Pettibone, Madonna put out a collection of tunes marked by cold, mechanical beats.
The opening track, Erotica‘s first single and title tune, is rumbling, murky, and ominous. Chains rattle, and a deep bass throbs, setting the scene for the S&M imagery Madonna explores in the song. Madonna adopts a persona, Dita, the dominatrix, who recites the song’s lyrics in a grainy drone. When she commands, “Give it up / Do as I say / Give it Up and let me have my way / I’ll give you love / I’ll hit you like a truck / I’ll give you love / I’ll teach you how to fuck” she creates a space in which she is the sexual, dominating aggressor and mistress. The song’s clever couplet rhymes truck with fuck, but she interrupts herself with lustful moans. The beats on “Erotica” are steady and strutting with a loose melody when Madonna croons the refrain, “Erotic, erotic, put your hands all over my body.” It’s an odd song, one that would sound ill-fitting on 1990s radio – and yet, it was a big hit, climbing up to number three on the Billboard pop charts, managing to be at once, mainstream and subversive.
Of course, the accompanying video was equally important to the impact of the song. With the video for “Erotica”, Madonna again found herself running against MTV’s standards and practices. The channel shunted the video to late-night airing before banning it, as it did with “Justify My Love” a couple of years earlier. Art director Fabien Baron helmed the controversial video, lifting some grainy images of the Sex photoshoots with fellow icons Naomi Campbell and Isabella Rossellini, interspersed with shots of Madonna-as-Dita, the masked dominatrix. The” Erotica” video acts as a sequel of sorts to “Justify My Love”, so it makes perfect sense that it was met with a similar reception by MTV. Both videos explored deep, dark sexuality, and Madonna also looked to queer themes, aesthetics, and imagery. Much of the controversy around these videos and objections was of their inclusion of same-sex affection.
The frigid carnality of “Erotica” is pervasive on other tracks on the album. On “Bye Bye Baby”, she similarly distorts her voice through a filter to make it sound like it’s being projected through an old-fashioned Victrola. Her voice – never a robust instrument – is further thinned out by studio turpentine, making her presence on some of these songs as ghostly, mechanical, and somewhat technical, as if she were just one of many studio effects. On albums like True Blue (1986) or Like a Prayer (1989), Madonna’s vocal presence is heavily felt, despite her limitations. She maintains warmth and humanity in her music, even if it’s often highly technical and studio driven. (Listen to her emotional – if imperfect – singing on the mournful ballad “Promise to Try” on Like a Prayer.) On a selection of tunes on Erotica, Madonna choose to leech out the humanity of the songs by allowing her voice to become a monotonous hum. On her cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, she turns the smoldering pop tune into an apathetic house thumper, her airy deadpan floating listlessly over the pulsing beats.
With Pettibone, Madonna connects with her club roots; therefore, the bulk of Erotica is some of her most club-centric music ever. Though a mainstream pop record, there are enough elements of DJ and club culture to give the record a sleek, blacklight and strobe light-fettered tone; it’s intentionally alienating and removed. When she does inject life into some of the songs, the effect can feel quite shocking in comparison with the dominant sound of the record. On “Deeper and Deeper”, Madonna returns to the house-pop of “Vogue,” even referencing the classic tune on the bridge when she reminds listeners, “You got to just let your body move to the music / You got to just let your body go with the flow.”
The self-referential bit in “Deeper and Deeper” feels affectionate and works as a reminder of her long roots in club culture, particularly her affinity for ball culture. (As well as, her perennial mining and purloining of subcultures for her artistic gain.) The call back to “Vogue” is also one of many references to queer culture on the album. Madonna’s status as a queer icon was at its height during this time. Her connection with the queer community was understandable: both she and gay people were used as cudgels in the culture war, exploited by the Right to scare people.
Madonna was also a committed AIDS activist, one of the early advocates in the first few years of the disease. She was personally affected by the disease when it decimated her early community of friends when she landed in New York City, a starving artist. When honored by GLAAD for her queer rights activism, Madonna took the stage and delivered a speech that touched upon her history with queer people and her place in the New York City downtown art scene and renaissance. “The AIDS epidemic,” she said, “the plague that moved in like a black cloud in New York City, and in the blink of an eye,” she said, snapping her fingers for effect, “took out all of my friends.”
Madonna addresses AIDS in Erotica with the moody dirge, “In This Life”. In the song, she is a helpless and impotent spectator, unable to stop this formless, terrifying specter that is killing her loved ones. The song – written with Pettibone – is a sad tale of two close friends and mentors, Martin Burgoyne and Christopher Flynn. The song moves with a steady, ponderous melody, the piano tick-tocking like a clock, a rather obvious and heavy-handed metaphor for the passage of time. But the lyrics are refreshingly direct and free of metaphor (Madonna as a lyricist, sometimes indulges in mystical, flowery poetry). Though Madonna wouldn’t be the first artist to address AIDS in her music, she would be one of the first to address the accompanying homophobia of anti-AIDS stigma.
Though not a ‘gay’ disease, AIDS was seen as such. Most AIDS activism in nervous Hollywood was confined to the ubiquitous red ribbon at awards shows. Therefore many entertainers who may have been sympathetic would be wary of embracing AIDS activism for fear of either alienating family-friendly fan bases or being accused of being queer themselves. If mainstream performers addressed pop AIDS activism, often it remained a ‘safe’ form of activism, avoiding the homophobia. Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Rivers, and Bette Midler, along with Madonna, were notable exceptions – these women advocated on behalf of people with AIDS but also spoke out against anti-gay discrimination.
Madonna does so in the song “In This Life,” mournfully warbling, “Why should he be treated differently? / Should it matter who you choose to love?” before returning to the chorus in which she vows, “In this life / I loved you most of all / What for? / ’Cuz now you’re gone and I have to ask myself / What?” She also hits upon the paranoia of the AIDS crisis, singing, “People pass by / And I wonder who’s next? / Who determines who knows best? / Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn in this case?” She talks of learning a lesson, dovetailing with Susan Sontag’s work, AIDS and Its Metaphors, and the essay’s attack of viewing AIDS through a lens of ‘lessons’ and ‘punishment.’ But Madonna’s quest for a lesson isn’t about people living with AIDS learning a lesson but about the bystanders learning a lesson in empathy and humanity.
Sontag argued in her essay that metaphorizing illness like AIDS contributes to its fatality as patients are not only suffering from the symptoms of the disease but also societal ostracization. When being honored by amfAR in 1991 for her AIDS activism, Madonna admitted in her acceptance speech, “Now, I’m not HIV-positive. But what if I were? I would be more afraid of how society would treat me for having the disease than the actual disease itself.” In that speech, she derided homophobia and anti-AIDS discrimination by suggesting, “instead of pointing the finger at people and having witch hunts and ostracizing each other for lifestyles and sexual preferences, we should all be uniting to fight this disease.”
Though “In This Life” begged for a world free of judgment, the single “Bad Girl” does present a more critical point of view, as Madonna sings about a narrative that recalls Looking for Mr. Goodbar. In the song, Madonna embodies a woman whose life of decadent debauchery leaves her cold and unsatisfied. “Bad girl / Drunk by six / Kissing someone else’s lips / Smoked too many cigarettes today / I’m not happy / This way.” The accompanying video David Fincher, co-starring Christopher Walken as the angel of death, is arguably the most accomplished bit of cinema that Madonna created.
Perhaps, the punitive, moralistic tone of the video was a reflection of this period (which would lead to the release of Bedtime Stories), Madonna faced the height of the knee-jerk misogynistic backlash dotted with ignominious moments like a much-ballyhooed appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. The depth of the backlash was captured by the release of the satiric book, The I Hate Madonna Handbook, by Ilene Rosenzweig. In her positive review of the book, Entertainment Weekly writer Erica Kornberg breathlessly sniped, “[Madonna’s] book (Sex) was an embarrassment. Her movies are expected to bomb. Her recent appearance on David Letterman’s show was pathetic.” Shen then asks, “Now that Madonna’s career seems a shell of its former self, is it still fun to pick on her? Absolutely.”
It seems ridiculous that someone would go to the trouble of writing a book about hating someone. Still, because Madonna had shellacked herself with a seemingly impervious armor, it’s easy to forget that a human being was underneath all of this hype, the jokes, and the insults. In her acceptance speech for the Billboard Woman of the Year in 2016, she admitted to being thrown and hurt by the onslaught of viperish vitriol, unable to fathom its source or cause.